Is God an Imaginary Friend?

This is a new billboard in our city. While some may have a strong reaction to a sign like this, I think Christians ought to listen to what our atheist friends are saying to us because it says a lot about us. The billboard is a massive mirror of how our lived faith looks. (This is not unlike Nietzshce’s late 19th-century proclamation that “God is dead”, which was not a statement about belief in God but an indictment of a culture that claimed to believe in God while they had functionally deconstructed a theistic worldview.) 

The uncomfortable truth is that for many Christians, God is like an imaginary friend. This is especially highlighted around Easter season by the way we talk about Jesus’ resurrection. Broadly speaking, Evangelicals think the Resurrection means some combination of these three things:

1. EVACUATION: Because God raised Jesus from the dead, we know that Jesus really was God, and therefore those who believe in Him are going to be taken out of this world one day and go to heaven. God, in this view, is an imaginary Fireman who will rescue us from the flames of Hell, which are even now consuming this world.

2. COMPENSATION: Because God rasied Jesus from dead, we know that Jesus was God and so we ought to listen to what the Bible says and do good things if we want to be rewarded. God, in this view, is an imaginary Santa Claus who “knows when we’ve been bad or good” and will compensate us accordingly with a scolding or with ethereal rewards in heaven.

3. CONSOLATION: Because God raised Jesus from the dead, we know that Jesus is God and since He ascended to heaven, we’ll go there one day too. God, in this view, is an imaginary therapist— or grandma, if you like– who will make us feel better and “make it up to us” for all the crummy stuff we lived through on earth.

There is something true about each of these paradigms. There is some kind of destructive judgment described with fiery imagery for those who refuse God; there is a way that our lives in the present will be judged in the future; and there is a comfort that is coming. But each of these views are non-material, disembodied, and have nothing to do with the here and now. So when an atheist puts up a billboard that says, “God is an imaginary friend,” they are quite right about how we talk about our God! So much of what modern Evangelicals– around the world, sadly!– say about God and hope and “heaven” is escapist.

But is this what the Resurrection really means? Is this what the Resurrection meant to the first followers of Jesus? Most assuredly not. When you read the first sermons in Acts– or even how the Gospel writers tell their story up to the climax of Jesus’ resurrection– they are not simply trying to show that Jesus is God (though John seems up to that more than the others). They are trying to show that in Jesus, God has become King of THIS world, right here, right now!

Rather than an evacuation plan or a compensation deal or a consolation attempt, the Resurrection of Jesus means that God’s long-promised and long-awaited “New Creation” project has been launched– right here in the middle of the present creation! God’s Kingdom has come to bear upon the world, even now! The Church, then, is a New Community that is in itself a sign to the world that a new Age has dawned, even before the old one has ended.

Think briefly about what a difference this makes:

Instead of EVACUATION, you have a model for ENGAGEMENT: how we care for the poor and for the planet matters because redemption and not escape is God’s plan. (If Jesus’ resurrection body retained the scars of His death, then is it possible the “scars” we leave on this creation will be found in new creation?)

Instead of COMPENSATION, you have a paradigm for ETHICS that is based on a telos, an end goal: how we develop character now determines how much we get to “rule over” then. This is not unlike Aristotle’s “virtue ethics”, though Aristotle’s telos (end goal) was human happiness, and the New Testament’s is the preparedness of the believer to “reign with Christ.” Both Jesus and Paul tie the motivation for developing character in this life to our roles in the next– “ruler of much”, “reigning with Christ,” “judging angels”, etc.

Instead of CONSOLATION, you have a vision of HOPE: death will give way to life, wounds will be healed scars, tears will be wiped away, and all will be set right. The comfort for the grieving is not simply that their loved one is in heaven, though it seems to be their current temporary place. The comfort is that one day they– all in Christ!– will receive bodily resurrection to live in a renewed creation. This isn’t God “trying to make it up to us”; this is God making it right by restoration and redeeming and making it new. Moreover, it makes our hope not some ethereal, disembodied heaven but a new physical, spirit-fueled body (read 1 Corinthians 15 closely). It is easy to call the Christian hope “imaginary” when we speak of disembodied, non-material spiritual “realities.” But the vision of Scripture is that the same God who made the material world does not intend to scrap it but to renew it and heal it and set it right (Isaiah 2, 25, 61; Revelation 21).

I suspect that if Christians really began to grasp just what Jesus’ resurrection means– that new creation has begun!– we would begin to live like Jesus is the risen King over this world, here and now. Our engagement in this world would be different. It would involve caring for physical and material needs and not simply “spiritual souls”. Our ethics would be different. We woud love and forgive like we believed love overcomes all. Our hope would be different. We would speak of a restored world and not a spiritual heaven as our final home.

And then maybe it would be harder to say that for us God is simply an imaginary friend.

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Glenn Packiam is one of the associate senior pastors at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the lead pastor of New Life Downtown, a congregation of New Life Church. Glenn earned a Doctorate in Theology and Ministry from Durham University in the UK. He also holds BA in Theological/Historical Studies and Masters in Management from Oral Roberts University, and a Graduate Certificate in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. Glenn and his wife, Holly, have four children.